The exhibition of celebrated Native American Artist Kay Walkingstick, finishes a 5-city tour in Montclair. The impressive retrospective covers four decades of the artist’s work, culminating with her recent paintings of monumental landscapes and Native places. This is a thought-provoking show, 60 + works filled with beauty, symbolism and resonating themes to be savored, contemplated, and absorbed.
WalkingStick’s exhibiton at MAM is a kind of homecoming; it was here that she previously taught art classes, served from 2006-20010 on the museum board, and exhibited in 2008.
Kay WalkingStick, (b.1935) daughter of a Cherokee father, wife, mother, and professor, paints vividly – alternately serene, violent, bright, dark, realistic, abstract, allegorical. The retrospective begins in the 1970s and takes the spectator through an evolution of her artistic innovation and invention – reflections of what has been meaningful in her life.
Living the duality of her mixed heritage included time in Oklahoma on her ancestral Cherokee lands. Later she lived in Philadelphia, Syracuse, then New Jersey. Drawn to art, and painting throughout her life, it is through her work that she would reconcile her modern upbringing with her Native American roots. In the 70s she began to seriously advance her career as a contemporary artist. She would often visit art galleries in New York to keep abreast of the current trends.
Diptych painting is perhaps her most distinctive and recognizable style. Two panels, joined images compared and contrasted in both theme, medium, and color create depth and beg to be studied. When combined, the two panels express complementary kinds of knowledge: external sensory perception of the material world on one side, and internal spiritual comprehension on the other.
Landscapes, Native American heritage, sexuality, sensuality as themes of self exploration reverberate throughout the exhibition. One can feel a linear progression of increasing depth, intensity, and creativity expressed by the artist. The works of light and dark, paint, sand, wax, metal and stone, indigenous patterns and soft fluid landscapes evoke emotion and deep reflection.
WalkingStick’s paintings often experiment portraying negative space as well as positive. A Sensual Suggestion (1974) depicts a floating apron hanging from what appears to be a barely visible roof top. It was painted at the beginning of her career when she was juggling marriage, motherhood, and pursuing and MFA at Pratt in Brooklyn. Influenced by the NYC art scene, the women’s movement, it is part of “the “Apron Series”
Many of her paintings have Native American names, such as the meditative Chief Joseph series on display – 27 dark, moody panels with two large, two small arcs placed in different ways – each panel unique and undefined. This is her homage to a great Cherokee leader.
In graduate school, her work becoming more abstract, as WalkingStick began to think of painting as both a process and an object, exploring shape and texture. Utilizing the technique of emulsion painting she works with stain, sand and wax layering dense, heavy material applied with hands and tools.
In the 80s, while teaching at Cornell, she created a trio of contrasting diptychs capturing the American Elm. One half deeply abstract, the other was more of a traditional landscape interpretation.
In 1989 her husband died suddenly, a devastating end to a 30-year marriage. The artist works through her grief, producing a stark charcoal series. Her work transitions from pastoral to dramatic dark colors.
In the 90s WalkingStick is drawn to the southwest, and moves to New Mexico, where she finds comfort and peace in nature. Her creative inspiration comes from the land of her ancestors.
Other works reflect on Native American history, the symbolic relationship of place and its identity for her people. “Where are the Generations?” brilliantly blue and black with a copper engraving is her meditation of this thought.
Continue through the exhibit and you’ll see how teaching for Cornell Universtiy in Italy from 1996 to 2005 transformed her contemporary art style, then working in rich oil paint, gold, silver, and bronze leaf common during the Italian renaissance, and reintroducing body images in her work. She also converted to Catholicism at this time.
In 2005, WalkingStick retired from Cornell and was diagnosed with cancer. Foreign travel plans halted, as did production of large canvasses. She continued to create diptychs on a smaller scale.
Travelling to the Smoky Mountains inspired a moving diptych “Trail of Tears,” a tragic part of the Native American narrative. Many of the paintings show Native American patterns boldly floating over the images.
Exhibition co-curator Kathleen Ash-Milby of Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian says, “Kay WalkingStick is iconic – she changed the field of Native American art, which was often excluded from the discourse on contemporary art. As a woman, as a Native American, she hit a lot of roadblocks.” She was the first Native American to appear in H.W. Janson’s “History of Art” (Fifth Edition 1995).
The exhibition at Montclair Art Museum is coordinated by Gail Stavitsky, MAM’s chief curator. A prolific painter with a huge body of work, many of Walkingstick’s paintings are in museums and private collections. Newark Museum will be acquiring one soon. Kay WalkingStick lives in Easton, PA and continues to paint.
Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist
February 3 – June 17, 2018
Montclair Art Museum, 3 South Mountain Ave., Montclair
April 26 Gaelen Family Artist Lecture 7:30 PM
Artist Kay WalkingStick in conversation with curator Kathleen Ash-Milby.